Time running out for Liberian who has plunged much of West Africa into fighting and looting
CHARLES Taylor, Africa’s most notorious warlord, used to be greeted at Liberian election rallies in 1997 - after nearly a decade of civil war - with the demented cry: "He killed my father. He killed my mother. He get my vote."
He was elected that year as president of one of continent’s weirdest countries with 75 per cent of the vote. For six years his guerrilla army had fought a ferocious civil war, when about 200,000 of Liberia’s 2.8 million people were killed and 800,000 driven from their homes before the fighting ground to a halt out of sheer weariness.
Terrified Liberians were on the move again yesterday - pouring into the capital, Monrovia. Rebels attacked the edges of the coastal African city, with the declared goal of toppling Taylor, 55, from power.
About 600 rebels attacked the Atlantic Ocean beach suburb of Virginia at dawn, defence officials said, but government forces were pushing back the insurgents from the area’s Organisation of African Unity bridge. At least five government soldiers and "around 20" rebels were killed in the fighting.
This week, Taylor became only the second head of state - after Slobodan Milosevic - to be indicted by a UN-backed court for war crimes, in this case committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone. He responded by arresting his vice-president on Thursday, citing a coup plot.
But the man described by an acclaimed West African journalist, Sorious Samoura, as Africa’s first "mafia head of state", seems close to being cornered.
The atmosphere of fear and intimidation during the 1997 election campaign was so intense that every party - except his - asked for the vote to be postponed. It went ahead after Taylor warned: "If the elections commission chairman postpones the vote, only the angels will protect him."
Taylor recruited child soldiers to fight other guerrilla groups. His Muammar al-Gaddafi-trained National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) plundered diamonds and timber on a huge scale before it finally entered Monrovia, the Liberian capital, in 1995.
Heavily drugged NPFL fighters were filmed looting a Monrovia bridal shop and a lighting store before emerging in wedding dresses and wearing lampshades on their heads while toting AK-47 automatic rifles.
One NPFL company, called the Butt Naked Brigade, was made up of teenage brutes who fought wearing only trainer shoes.
The international arrest warrant issued this week charges him with terrorising the civilian population of Sierra Leone, with unlawful killings, sexual and physical violence, the use of child labour, forced labour, looting, burning and the murder of UN peacekeepers.
Taylor began fuelling the Sierra Leone civil war after his election, equipping Foday Sankoh’s rebels, who achieved notoriety in turn by hacking off the limbs of captives. In return Taylor personally earned more than 70 million a year from dealings in illicit Sierra Leonian diamonds, supplied by Sankoh.
Sankoh’s guerrillas were trained in Liberia and the rebel commanders were given big houses in Monrovia. Liberian newspapers that questioned the alliance and Taylor’s corrupt dealings were closed, and entire editorial staffs arrested.
Opponents who have crossed Taylor have had the habit of turning up with their heads removed.
The man behind this mayhem - an evangelical Christian - acquired four wives and numerous mistresses. He flogged his daughter Edena, 13, in public when she misbehaved in school.
Taylor whose mother is Liberian and father American, worked his way through university in Boston, Massachusetts, as a lorry driver. He emerged with an MA degree in economics.
That qualified him to returned home to become de facto chancellor of the exchequer under Liberia’s military dictator, the psychotic Master Sergeant Samuel Doe.
In 1983 Doe accused Taylor of transferring $1 million to a New Jersey company called International Earthmoving Equipment, which never sent any equipment to Liberia. Taylor fled to the US, where investigators had, perhaps not surprisingly, traced transfers from the International Earthmoving account to the Liberian’s personal Citibank account.
Taylor was arrested and imprisoned. To avoid extradition he became the only escapee ever from Plymouth County Jail, Massachusetts, using a hacksaw and rope of knotted bedsheets.
He made his way to Libya before returning home to help overthrow Doe, who was publicly tortured to death before his dismembered body was dragged through Monrovia's streets.
Since becoming president, Taylor has also fuelled civil wars in Guinea and the Ivory Coast and looted their economies.
"Charles Taylor is one of the single greatest causes of spreading wars in West Africa," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "His indictment is a tremendous step forward, but his arrest would be even better."
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